Rental fraud occurs when the victim has advertised a rental property and is contacted by a prospect. Once the rental price is agreed, the scammer forwards a check to the victim for the deposit for the rental property. The check is intended to cover housing costs and is either written out for more than the amount requested, with the scammer asking for the balance to be returned, or the check is written for the correct amount, but the scammer backs out of the lease and asks for a refund. Since banks do not usually withhold the funds, the victim has immediate access and believes the check has been cashed. In the end, the check turns out to be fake and the victim is held liable by the bank for any losses.
Another type of scam involves properties advertised online. The scammer duplicates posts from legitimate real estate websites and reposts these ads after altering them. Often the scammers will use the broker’s real name to create a fake email that gives more legitimacy to the scam. When the victim sends an email through the classifieds site inquiring about the house, they receive a reply from someone claiming to be the owner. The “owner” claims that he cannot show the property without payment because he is either out of town or out of the country. If the victim is interested in renting the house, they are asked to send money and shortly after, the property becomes unavailable.
According to the FBI’s Cybercrime Complaint Center (IC3), which provides the public with an opportunity to report cybercrime, there has been a steady increase in reported losses by victims of real estate/rental fraud over the past three years.
In 2021, 11,578 people nationwide reported losing $350,328,166 as a result of this type of scam, a 64% increase from the previous year. Here in the Boston Division, which includes all of Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, 415 casualties reported $13,424,269 in casualties, a 27% increase.
- 42 victims in Maine lost $489,309
- 290 victims in Massachusetts lost $8,944,041
- 41 victims in New Hampshire lost $2,576,210
- 42 victims in Rhode Island lost $1,414,709
The actual losses are most likely much higher as many people are reluctant to report that they have been scammed. Several incidents have been reported within the FBI Boston Division’s area of responsibility in recent months, including:
An Idaho man about to move to Rhode Island responded to a Craigslist ad for a one-year lease in Narragansett, RI. After receiving an advance of $21,756 from his employer, he transferred that money to the “owner” and arranged a time to gain access to the residence. Before the agreed date, the man received a text message canceling the meeting because the “owner” was in Chicago caring for his ailing son. The man walked to the apartment building and was greeted by the actual owner, who told him it was not a rental property and that he had not placed an online ad.
A man from East Providence, RI, responded to an online ad for an apartment in Cambridge, MA, demanding the first and last month’s rent and a security deposit. The man was told he would not be given the keys and not allowed into the apartment until the check for $6,000 was cashed at the bank. As soon as this happened, he made an appointment to collect the keys to the apartment, but no one answered the door. After calling and texting the alleged owner, the victim received a text message that said, “You have been scammed, stop texting this phone.”
A University of Rhode Island student responded to an online ad on Facebook Marketplace for an apartment in Wakefield, Rhode Island. The student transferred $1,800 to secure the apartment after being told he couldn’t view the apartment before moving in because the landlord was always out. When he showed up to move in, he was given the rental office’s address and told there were no units available.
How to avoid becoming a victim:
- Don’t transfer funds to people you don’t know.
- Don’t put money into a house or apartment you haven’t seen.
- Confirm the landlord’s identity by researching public records to find out who owns the property you’re looking to rent or buy.
- Do not fill out the applications online until you have met the property management directly.
- Know the local rental prices.
- Look for online reviews, testimonials, and testimonials from past residents.
- Be careful when a potential renter wants to rent a property unseen.
- Be careful when a potential renter says they’re out of town and sends you a bank check.
- Be careful when a prospective landlord says he is abroad and wants the rent to be paid into a foreign account.
- Do not accept overpayment for real estate. If you receive a check for the amount stated, return it. Don’t deposit it.
If you are the target or victim of a rental scam, cut all contact immediately, and if you have already sent money, it is extremely important to report any money transfer to your financial institution and to file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at ic3 .gov.